“World War 1” is among the most controversial conflicts of the 20th Century. Regarding causes, prosecution, and legacy there exists no overall consensus in the academic community. The question regarding whether or not Germany was really defeated in the war is one example. Whereas most scholars agree Germany lost decisively there is still a school of thought that questions this. Citing that the German Army was not completely destroyed in 1918, that Entente forces never sat foot on German soil in 1918, and that Germany had massive territorial gains in Eastern Europe, and Russia, at the end of the war this school of thought suggests Germany did not decisively lose the conflict. However, while such claims have some validity there is little doubt given Germany’s desperate straits in 1918, and the fact her leaders were so desperate to accept such an unfavourable armistice, there is no doubt Germany had little chance to continue the war for much longer. For various military, economic, political and other issues, Germany decisively lost “World War 1.”
While apologists of German militarism in “World War 1” tend to point out factors such as those listed above they forget more decisive factors. These include that the German Army was indeed decisively defeated in battle, all of Germany’s allies had surrendered by the end of 1918, the British blockade of Germany severely compromised Germany’s homefront and economy, the German Navy had mutinied, revolutions and uprisings were breaking out across Germany, her leaders like the Kaiser and General Ludendorff had sued for peace and then fled abroad to avoid the consequences of German aggression, and Germany knowingly accepted the armistice terms in 1918 despite its harshness.
Perhaps the biggest myth is that the German Army was never beaten in the field during “World War 1.” The German spring, and summer, offensives in 1918 arguably had a chance to defeat France, and Britain, at key points but by the end of the year the German Army was hanging on by a thread. During the last months of the war the Entente powers on the Western Front launched a series of attacks, known as the “Hundred Days Offensive” which decisively broke the back of the German army. In three months the Entente powers captured approximately 385,000 German prisoners, as well as nearly 6600 artillery pieces, besides inflicting scores of killed and wounded, upon the German Army. These stats are not only significant in themselves, but they illustrate the point that the German Army, like most armies, only suffered such a lopsided amount of prisoners, and artillery pieces, when they were being routed. Such a military phenomenon is confirmed by not only countless military studies, but the great military theorist Clausewitz who noted “guns and prisoners have always counted as the real trophies of victory: they are also its measure, for they are tangible evidence of its scale. They are a better index to the degree of superior morale”, of the enemy army he meant, “than any other factors.”
German losses also include considerable territory, and the overrunning of the vaunted Hindenburg line. While critics of Entente forces point out that German advances during the spring of 1918 took far more land then all Entente offensive on the Western Front since late 1914 to autumn 1917 they forget that not only did the Entente recover the losses from this offensives, but considerable more territory in Belgium and France by the end of the war. Had the Germans not pleaded for an armistice, and the war continued passed November 1918, the Entente would have entered Germany probably sometime in early 1919. Meanwhile the Hindenburg line, which at the time was the greatest defensive line constructed in history, and which the Germans hoped would stop the Entente forces, was breached relatively quickly by the British Army, at which point Germany fell back irrevocably towards the German border. Critics of the Entente point out that the Entente forces never reached German soil in 1918, and that the war on the Western Front was fought in Belgium and France. However, there is no doubt had the war continued the Entente, backed by millions of fresh American soldiers, and thousands of new tanks and airplanes, would have overrun Germany in 1919.
German military losses in 1918 were simply too high for them to continue the war for long. Perhaps most damning is that whereas in the spring of 1918 the Germans outnumbered the Entente on the Western front 192 to 156 divisions by the armistice the Entente forces had almost twice as many soldiers as the German forces who had been decisively routed. As seen by the chart below the Entente rifle strength of their forces started out inferior in early 1918 but dominated the Germans by the end of the war by nearly 2 to 1.
However, German military defeat on the Western Front was only one part of Germany’s overall defeat. Germany also lost all of her allies in late 1918. Of course one could suggest that German allies like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria were obviously not in the same league of stronger powers like France, Russia, an America, but whatever their weaknesses Germany’s allies were vital for Germany in many ways. Bulgaria gave the Central Powers (Germany and her allies) the edge in the Balkans and was important in defeating Serbia in 1915, Romania in 1916, containing the Entente forces at Salonica, as well as acting as a bridgeway to Turkey, and the Middle East, for German resources and military power. Turkey distracted considerable Entente forces away from the European battles by adding 3 more fronts to the war (against the Russians in the Caucasus, and the British in the Levant and Palestine; four if you include Gallipoli). Turkish involvement in the war also hampered Russia by closing the Bosporus straits, and preventing Entente material aid from reaching Russia in significant quantities. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, perhaps the most criticized, and least reliable, ally of Germany was still more of an asset for the Central Powers than a liability. She may have been often humiliated, and defeated, by Russian and Serbian forces, but she held down countless of their forces, and this should not be dismissed as there is no way way Germany could have held out against France, Britain and the whole Russian army. Besides which the Austrian army often fought better than is thought, especially when given German support and leadership, and the Austrian force fighting against Italy contained the latter nearly 4 years, inflicting prohibitive costs, despite being severely outnumbered and outgunned.
No German allies would have meant no fighting fronts against Entente forces in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Galicia and the Carpathians, or the Balkans. It means no Austrian, Bulgarian, and Turkish manpower to fight the war. The Central Powers mobilized approximately 20-22 million soldiers during the war, with Germany providing roughly half of this. It is hard to suggest that losing half of a war alliance’s manpower would not be detrimental to its war effort. It meant that all of the Entente manpower and resources, already at an advantage, could have been brought against Germany. In addition to the forces the Entente powers had to devote to contain Germany’s allies the Entente also often devoted too many others to these fronts, as well in campaigns they hoped would win the war despite the fact it could only be done by defeating Germany. Germany was not propped up by her allies (as Lloyd George thought), her allies were propped up by her; Austria had to be saved from a Russian forces from 1914-16, and Italy in 1917, via infusions of German forces, and Turkey needed German arms, and material, to continue the war. There was simply never a time during the war where Germany needed Austrian, Bulgarian or Turkish forces to save them from defeat; the opposite was the case. It is no coincidence that Germany’s allies collapsed in late 1918 after Germany had focused as much of her armed might on the Western Front as possible, thus denying her allies German resources, especially divisions, to save them from Entente offensives.
Thus in late 1918 when her allies fell one by one Germany’s chances of continuing the war became worse and worse. Bulgaria fell first in late September when the Entente Salonica force finally did something useful and attacked forcefully enough to defeat the Bulgarian army. This had a knock on effect because with Bulgaria collapsing the Entente forces from Salonica could now advance towards Constantinople. Given that British forces had also crushed Turkish forces in the Levant, and Mesopotamia, and Turkey had few soldiers left, meant Turkey had little choice but to surrender. Finally, Austria decisively lost the war in Italy in late October when her army, starving, demoralized and no longer loyal, disintegrated in the face of a strong Italian attack. By early November Germany’s allies were gone. While it is foolish to suggest that British forces in the Middle East, or Entente ones in the Balkans or Italy, posed a direct, or at least, immediate, threat to Germany, and could have invaded her from these areas considering the topographical and logistical factors, the collapse of Germany’s allies meant that all Entente resources would eventually be focused on her, while the morale effect of losing all of ones’ allies could not have been pleasant either.
Then there was the British blockade of Germany. In a predominately land war with trenches, attrition and massive casualties for a few miles, or meters, of gain per offensive the naval war can be forgotten or downplayed. However, the blockade was, eventually, a major factor in German defeat. After the British Empire Germany was the second biggest economy in 1914. Given that naval trade provided a disproportionate amount of resources, revenue and especially food for Germany it is obvious she would suffer eventually when fighting a superior maritime power like Britain. While Britain, and most of her allies, received countless weapons, resources and supplies via naval trade Germany, and her allies, became more denied of all of these, despite overrunning some countries, and territory, and getting some trade from neutrals like Sweden, Holland and Denmark. At the beginning of 1915, German imports had fallen by 55% from pre-war levels. This would only get worse as the British blockade became more effective at limiting neutral shipping, especially American, from reaching Germany.
Besides bland economic considerations a few other factors are worth mentioning. The British blockade of Germany resulted in between 400,000 and 800,000 German civilians deaths during the war. This was potentially more costly than the combined bomber offensive against Germany in “World War 2.” Both are obviously not proud points the Entente, or Allies, talk about but they nevertheless had decisive effects. Besides the potential nearly million German civilian deaths from the blockade has to be added the General starvation, and morale decline, of the German population. During the winter of 1916-17, often referred to by Germans as the “Turnip Winter,” food scarcity was so bad that the German diet consisted mostly of turnips. It also meant German military power would suffer. With fewer resources, money, and weapons, and bad civilian morale German arms suffered. Germany had far less planes, artillery, tanks, trucks and other war assets by 1918 compared to her enemies on the Western Front. Even the German Army’s food situation was terrible by 1918 and this became decisive when during the “German Spring Offensives” in 1918 German soldiers stopped to loot British, and French, food and wine, stores because they had been so deprived of good food and other luxuries. It obviously did not help German soldiers’ morale when their leaders had suggested the British, and French, were suffering just as many privations only to realize this was a lie. On the Entente side none of the major powers suffered such starvation, misery, or desperation even when German submarines were devastating British merchant shipping in 1917.
In the last days of the war the German Navy also mutinied. Told by German leaders to fight the Royal Navy in a do or die fashion the German sailors had had enough and refused. No doubt the already starving, demoralized, sailors were not keen on fighting a Royal Navy that had reformed since Jutland and was now backed by American naval power. The result would have been the unequivocal destruction of the German High Seas Fleet. Instead the German navy first mutinied, then seized Kiel and other cities, and helped spread revolution, and uprisings, across Germany. Such mutiny was unprecedented in German and Prussian military history. Even during the Nazis’ worst excesses, and German defeats, in “World War 2” no sizeable German forces rebelled.
This brought chaos to the German home front as Bavaria declared independence, German workers and soldiers formed soviet style councils which took over many cities, and some German army units mutinied and took control of the Rhine crossings. This helped to bring down the Kaiser, and the militarist government, in Berlin to be followed by a weak civilian government. It should be noted that the Entente refused to negotiate with Germany as long as the Kaiser remained in power.
Therefore the Kaiser was told in no uncertain terms, by his generals no less, that he should abdicate and let the civilians make peace with the Entente. Thus the Kaiser, whose misguided ambitions, and foreign policy, brought the rival British, French and Russian empires into an alliance against Germany, and who did so much to provoke the war, fled Germany and escaped justice. He would be offered asylum in 1940, ironically by Churchill of all people, when the Nazis invaded Holland but refused. Meanwhile Ludendorff, the German army’s de-facto military leader in 1918, and virtual dictator of Germany, also fled to Sweden. It is only fair to note that both of these men wanted unlimited sacrifice from their soldiers, and the German home front, and wanted them to fight to the end, but ultimately fled to save their skin. While no one likes to compare Hitler favourable to anyone at least he stayed in Berlin at the end of the war in 1945.
Such was the state of Germany in November, 1918. Vast amounts of German soldiers, and artillery pieces, being captured, the Germans army went from outnumbering the Entente forces by a significant margin to being outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 itself, all while falling back and losing the greatest amount of territory on the Western Front during the entire war (including the Hindenburg line). Usually when an army surrenders countless soldiers, and artillery, to its enemy, loses numerical superiority quickly after having previously enjoying it, and has to abandon considerable territory, as well as its key defensive line, it is considered a decisive military defeat. Yet the apologists of the German army disagree. Somehow the Germans could have recruited enough German soldiers from a manpower pool that had been bled white to fight, and amass enough military means from a nation starved of money, and resources, due to the British blockade to fight an Entente army that would have had millions of British, French and American soldiers, and 1000s of tanks, planes, and artillery if the war had gone into 1919.
Somehow a country that had been reduced by starvation, and despair, via naval blockade by 1918, which lost all of her allies in the same year, which saw the mutiny of her navy, uprisings and revolution spread across her home front, and the collapse of her unstable monarchy and militaristic government, did not lose the war according to bitter German Generals, and apologists for German militarism ever since. In fact very few countries have suffered such decisive defeats in war as Germany did in “World War 1.” The fact that the German military leaders, despite what they said in their memories and later on, literally begged for an armistice, and accepted its harsh terms, despite leaving Germany defenceless proves this.
The Entente’s armistice terms were devastating, uncompromising and were dictated to the German envoys in early November 1918, who were given no option to negotiate any of the relevant points. Some of the harshest terms included:
Germany had to abandon all occupied territory in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Alsace-Lorraine within 2 weeks.
The Rhineland was to be demilitarized by the Germans, and Entente forces would occupy bridgeheads on the Rhine itself to occupy part of German territory.
Germany would have to abandon all territory taken from Russia, as well as renounce the unfavourable treaties she had forced upon Russia and Romania. This was a massive blow to the German military elite which naively thought Germany might be able to keep her eastern gains.
The Lion-share of the German fleet would be interned in Entente ports.
The German army would have to hand over 5000 artillery guns (remember it had also already lost nearly 7000 in the last 3 months of the war), 25,000 machine guns and even 2000 warplanes. 5000 trucks, 150,000 rail cars, and 5000 locomotives, would also be given to the Entente.
The Naval Blockade would continue until a peace treaty was signed.
Germany was held responsible for the war and would pay considerable reparations for its cost.
While these terms did not destroy Germany as an independent state, and in the long run did not fatally weaken Germany in terms of territory, resources and population, they did fatally neutralize what was left of German military power in 1918. Hindenburg, what was left of the military elite, as well as the new civilian government in Germany, knew the armistice as presented would leave Germany defenceless. However, given that the Entente would not negotiate any of the terms, and since Germany was tearing itself apart, they had no choice but to accept the armistice and end the war.
Finally, it is not superfluous to remember Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is nothing but a continuation of politics by other means.” War is fought for political goals and the attainment, or denial, of such goals are a big part in determining which side wins. Of the Entente side Britain, France, America and Italy generally accomplished their war aims, albeit often at terrible human and financial cost. Britain prevented the English channel ports from falling into enemy hands, effectively guaranteed Belgium’s freedom, neutralized the growing threat of German naval power, and maintained the balance of power in Europe. France liberated the territory Germany took in 1914, regained Alsace-Lorraine, avenged the “Franco-Prussian War,” and replaced Germany as the strongest military power in Europe until 1940. America’s goals of a Wilsonian peace that would bring a more free, and fair, world obviously did not bear fruit but given that America replaced Britain as the foremost financial power during the war, and given American rising clout in international opinion meant that America gained the most from the war with hindsight. Italy effectively annexed the Italian speaking territories she coveted from Austria, and saw the dismemberment of her Austrian enemy’s empire, but was frustrated in other areas by British and French false promises. It is worth mentioning that Russia did not have a good war, lost more men, and territory, that any other power, suffered revolution and the beginning of communism that would plagued her for decades. However, Russian despair did not compensate for Germany, or her allies, failures.
What about the political goals of the Central Powers?
Bulgaria, who joined the war to avenge losses in the “Second Balkan war,” take territory in the Balkans, and become that region’s greatest power, had nothing to show in the end for her efforts but considerable losses of men, and territory, which were disproportionately detrimental for a small power like herself. Turkey’s ambitions to stop the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and acquire land against Russia in the Caucasus, and the British in the Middle East were also effectively quashed. Britain conquered the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon and Syria) as well as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918 and her capital was invested by Entente troops, and any territory the Turks gained against Russia had to be evacuated after the war. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, perhaps the country most responsible for starting the war, even more than Germany, was effectively destroyed by the conflict. Unable to defeat either Russia, or Serbia, the Austrians relied on Germany to prop them up constantly throughout the war. Ironically by the Spring of 1918 it seemed as though Austria’s political goals had been accomplished; Serbia had been conquered, Russia stymied and kicked out of the war, and Italy beaten back and contained. However, a few months later the Austrian army collapsed, her various peoples’ had rebelled, or declared independence, and what remained of Austria after 1919 was a small country of little geopolitical significance.
What of German political aims and results? While on one hand it is debatable what the German political, and military, elite wanted to accomplish, on the other hand it is easy enough to determine their basic goals. This included Preemption against Russian military, and economic, power that they felt would become unassailable in the near future. It also included either reducing France to a vassal state, or at least to an insignificant military threat against her, backing up Austria against Serbia, and potentially Russia in 1914. Certainly German war aims included breaking out of the real, or imagined, German view of being encircled by hostile powers all around her, as well as not only remaining the strongest power in Europe, but effectively dominating the continent.
To be fair Germany accomplished her goal against Russia; while the latter had been growing stronger each year the war stopped this and by 1917 Russia’s economy was in shambles, her military scattered and routed, her political system overturned, and much of her territory and population overran and occupied. This set back Russia years, maybe decades, and it would take until the 1940s for her to pose a real threat to Germany again. However, Germany failed miserably in her other goals. French independence, and military power, was not crushed, the Austrian Empire was destroyed, Germany not only failed to break out of her encirclement but lost her military power and suffered Entente occupation of the Rhineland. Needless to say Germany was not only not the strongest power in Europe by 1919 but far from dominating it. The Entente powers more or less accomplished their political aims of the war, but Germany and her allies unequivocally failed to accomplish theirs.
Germany lost “World War 1” decisively. In terms of military, political, economic, and morale, she lost in every regard. Germany’s Army was beaten, her allies deserted her, the German people became starved, hopeless and engaged in revolt, her navy mutinied and even her strongest leaders, the Kaiser and Ludendorff, fled abroad at the end of the conflict while her war aims clearly failed. Germany was not stabbed in the back by a weak kneed Homefront in 1918 with her army undefeated. In fact the army had been so defeated by the autumn of 1918 that her leaders, including Ludendorff, panicked and suggested an armistice to protect Germany before she was overrun. Germany’s military leadership, and the Kaiser, fled, and willingly gave over power, to a novice, and hesitant civilian government, that had to make peace with the Entente. In no way did the civlilian leadership in Germany challenge, or coerce, the militarists to sue for peace, the exact opposite is true. Germany lost the “World War 1” according to every measure of warfare.
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